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NC Grievance Panel Tackling Thorny Issues: ‘Serial Grievers’, Punishment for Boards

UPDATE - In attempting to create a rational but humane system for hearing complaints against neighborhood council governing boards, the grievance working group has made progress.
As I explained in CityWatch last week, the working group seemed to be heading towards an overly authoritarian plan, one in which panels nominated by neighborhood councils would consider complaints from the public, rule on the merits of those complaints, and pass sentence on the offending neighborhood councils.

What concerned me and numerous others was the essentially unlimited scope of punishments envisioned in this process, ranging all the way up to firing an entire governing board of a neighborhood council.

The working group met for one last time on October 19, 2011 and debated this question intensely.

Len Shaffer, president of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition, gave an instructive speech in which he attempted to interpret the thinking behind the original directive from the LA City Council.

This required that neighborhood councils include grievance procedures in their rules. Shaffer suggested that the intent went beyond the minimal requirement that aggrieved parties merely have a chance to vent their feelings during public comment.

He suggested that the desire was for something a little stronger, something more like a process by which truly injured parties could explain the basis of their hurt to an impartial group of people and ask for help.

This original concept would be consistent with a formal system of grievance panels such as the ones under discussion, provided that we correctly define and limit what such panels can do.

Shaffer's remarks contained within them the inference that such a grievance system does not automatically have to include a system of punishment, but would better work as a system by which opposing parties could talk things out.

Only if and when a neighborhood council refuses to comply with the rules should it be sanctioned, and even then, this process would have to be carried out by DONE. The discussion was a little more detailed than I have described here, but this briefer version will suffice. The working group was generally sympathetic to this argument.

The suggested plan that ultimately resulted would, if enacted, be a huge improvement over the previous model, as it includes checks and balances that were not in the original.

In essence, the proposal goes like this: A person who is serious about a grievance can file a complaint with DONE and, under the proposed system, DONE would communicate the complaint to the accused neighborhood council governing board and to the grievance panel that is to hear it.

The grievance panel would still be selected out of volunteers nominated by governing boards, but its duties would be a little different than previously envisioned.

In brief, the grievance panel would consider the merits of the complaint, taking care to afford due process to both sides. The panel would then report its findings as to the merit or lack of merit of a complaint. In this sense, the grievance panel would act as a fact finding body, much as a jury would act in a court case. This by itself would be a substantial change in our neighborhood council system, since no such volunteer based fact finding system has been tried so far.

The working group also agreed that a grievance panel could recommend actions to cure a proven offense. For example, suppose a governing board held a meeting in the absence of proper advance notification and someone filed a complaint. This would likely result in a recommendation to redo the meeting with proper notification.

There was some additional debate about whether a grievance panel should go further by recommending punishment. Any such "remedy" would have to be agreed upon and administered by DONE or some other official government body. Even if the system were to go this additional step, the grievance panel itself would have no direct power to punish.

In this proposed system, there is one additional service to be provided by DONE staff. Complaint and grievance letters that come to DONE will be evaluated as to whether the claims would, if factual, rise to the level that is required for them to be considered grievances.

For example, if someone complains about the outcome of a vote by a governing board, and that vote was otherwise legal and proper, this does not rise to the level of a grievable offense. It is just a political decision that one person happens not to like.

Grievances, to be considered actionable, have to rise to the level in which the governing board violates a rule badly enough to do damage to someone's rights or interests.

One other issue came up during the meeting. It is a separate problem that has bedeviled certain neighborhood council boards for years.

It is called 'the serial griever" problem by its victims, and refers to the fact that a few people continue to file complaint after complaint, generally without merit, and often just as a repetition of the same subject. One neighborhood council has received close to 50 complaints from the same person.

In another council, the president has recently received 3 complaints from one individual over the period of a few weeks. This is a drain on peoples' lives and has wasted the time of the City Attorney and of DONE.

In discussion, we asked the people who receive these complaints why they bother to act on them at all. Why not just throw them in a box and ignore them? The answer was that their bylaws require them to go through the whole procedure for any complaint.

The City Attorney and others pointed out that they could change their bylaws and no longer have to respond. The virtue of doing things this way would be that serial grievers could send complaints to DONE, which has paid staff to deal with such things, and DONE would filter out the truly meritless complaints.

Additional discussion included the fact that we have just gone through a year's organizational work  to create the peer mentoring groups and the Roberts Rules instructional group. The purpose of these organizations is to prevent the sorts of actions that lead to complaints and grievances.

The goal is to have a system with enlightened leadership, one that works so well that we won't see a lot of complaints.

(Bob Gelfand is the vice chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition and an occasional CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at -cw

Tags: Neighborhood Councils, Grievance System, Len Shaffer, City Council, serial grievers, City Attorney, DONE

Vol 9 Issue 86
Pub: Oct 28, 2011